Tag Archives: the first plot point

#NaNoWriMo prep part 6: How the Story Begins #amwriting

Today we’re continuing to prep for NaNoWriMo by thinking about the plot and the story our characters inhabit. In post one, we thought about what kind of project we intend to write—novels, short stories, poems, memoirs, personal essays, etc.

Post two of this series introduced the protagonist(s), giving us an idea of who they are and what they do. Post three explored the setting, so we know where they are and their circumstances. Post four detailed creating the skeleton of a plot. Post five jumped to the end, giving us a finite event to write to.

beginnings are endingsToday, we will pinpoint the moment in our protagonist(s) life where the story starts. We’re locating the point where this particular memoir, poem, novel, or short story begins.

The day that changed everything should open the story.

We see the protagonists in their familiar environment. By evening, a chain of events has begun. A tiny, insignificant stone rolls downhill, the first incident that will soon precipitate an avalanche of problems our protagonist must solve.

When we are new in this craft, we have a burning desire to front-load the history of our characters into the story, so the reader will know who they are and what the story is about.

I am the queen of front-loading. Fortunately, my writer’s group is made up of industry professionals and one in particular, Lee French, has an unerring eye for where the story a reader wants to know begins.

I have to remind myself that the first draft is the thinking draft. It’s where we build worlds and flesh out characters and relationships. It’s also where the story grows as we add to it.

We need a finite starting point, a place of interest. Have faith—the backstory will emerge as the story progresses. If we have our world solidly in our heads as we write, the reader will visualize a version of it that works for them, without our info dumping the history.

Let’s plot the beginning of a medieval fantasy:

Act 1: the beginning:

lute-clip-artSetting: Venice in the year 1430.The weather is unseasonably cold. A bard is concealed amongst the filth and shadows in a dark, narrow alley. Sebastian hides from the soldiers of a prince he has unwisely humiliated in a comic song.

Opening plot point–the hook: the soldiers surround and capture Sebastian, and he is hauled before the angry prince. The trial is brief and painful. Beaten and bloody, Sebastian is thrown into prison and sentenced to be beheaded at dawn.

That moment of despair is the end of chapter one.

You have done some prep work for character creation, so Sebastian is your friend. You know his backstory, who he is attracted to (men, women, none, or both), how handsome he is, and his personal history.

You know who he will meet in prison, someone who will help him escape. Depending on Sebastian’s romantic preference, Chance (an assassin’s professional name) will be male or female and dislikes the bard on sight. Still, Chance needs Sebastian’s help to escape as he/she/they will also die at dawn.

You have decided that the prince is a dark-path warlock. His brother is a highly placed cardinal who intends to become pope, protects him.

You have designed Sebastian and Chance’s escape, which is the first pinch point— the place where what they learn from each other fuels a quest: that of killing the Warlock Prince. Each has different reasons for this, but the enemy of my enemy is my friend, and all that.

But now they are on the run and have no idea how to accomplish that task. Circumstances force them to work together despite their clash of personalities.

And we all know how friction heats things up. Romance or no romance, this tension is crucial.

We (the author) know the Warlock Prince must die if they are to save Venice, but who will be willing to help them, and what roadblocks stand in their way? These people will emerge as you write the first draft.

You’ve written down some ideas for the ending, so you have a goal to write to. At this point, the middle of the story is murky, but it will come to you as you write toward the ending. Every event and roadblock that happens to Sebastian between his arrest and the final moments of his victory will emerge from your imagination as you write your way through this first draft.

Mardi_Gras_mask_cateyes_iconBut the opening moment, the scene showing a lowly bard hiding behind a rubbish heap, is the moment in Sebastian’s life where the story the reader wants to hear starts. That scene is where this story begins regardless of how interesting Sebastian’s story, Venice’s story, or the Warlock Prince’s story was before that day. It is the beginning because this is the point where all the essential characters are in one place and are introduced:

  • The reader meets the villain and sees him in all his power
  • Sebastian knows one thing—the Warlock Prince must be stopped. He can sink no lower—he has hit bottom, and from there he can only go up.
  • Chance is in the same low emotional place, but he/she/they have an escape plan.

The story kicks into gear at this pinch point because the assassin is at risk on two fronts, which means Sebastian is too. Chance’s original task of killing the prince has failed, so now they must avoid both the prince’s soldiers and the mysterious employer‘s goons. For Chance, it’s a matter of pride that the original commission must be fulfilled despite the fact there will be no payment. Sebastian agrees to help ensure it happens because he has a conscience and wants to protect the people of Venice from the prince and his brother.

Attraction often grows in the most unlikely of places. Will it blossom into romance? It’s Venice, a city filled with romance and intrigue. But you’re the author, so only you know how their relationship grows as you write their adventure.

What else will emerge over the following 40,000 or more words (lots more in my case)?

  • Who is the assassin’s mysterious employer and what is their agenda?
  • Who is Chance really, what is their true name, and how did he/she/they become an assassin?

Sebastian will find this information out as the story progresses and only when he needs to know it. With that knowledge, he will realize his fate is sealed—he’s doomed no matter what. But it fires him with the determination that if he goes down, he will take the Warlock Prince and his corrupt brother with him.

If you dump the history at the beginning, the reader has no reason to go any further. You have wasted words on something that doesn’t advance the plot, doesn’t intrigue the reader.

Finding the beginning of the story

The people who will help our hapless protagonist will enter the story as he needs them. Each person will add information the reader wants, but only when Sebastian requires it. Some characters, people who can offer the most help will be held back until the final half of the story.

By the end of the novel, the reader will have acquired the important history of Sebastian, Chance, the mysterious employer, and the Warlock Prince. With the last bits of information, the final pieces of the puzzle will fall into place.

Gaining all that knowledge is the carrot that keeps the reader involved in the book.

Next up, in post 7, we will talk about resources for beleaguered writers. Memoirs, poems, essays, novels–every author needs handy resources to bookmark.

The final post in this 8-part series will be on how to carve out time for writing whether you are participating in NaNoWriMo or just writing for fun.


Posts in this series:

#NaNoWriMo prep part 1: Deciding on the Project #amwriting

#NaNoWriMo prep part 2: Character Creation #amwriting

#NaNoWriMo prep part 3: Designing Worlds #amwriting

#NaNoWriMo prep part 4: Plot Arc #amwriting

#NaNoWriMo prep part 5: How the Story Ends #amwriting

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How the Written Universe Works: The Inciting Incident #amwriting

Whether we show it in the prologue or the opening chapter, the first event, the inciting incident, is the one that changes everything and launches the story. The universe that is our story begins expanding at that moment.

the inciting incidentThe first incident has a domino effect. More events occur, pushing the protagonist out of his comfortable life and into danger. Fear of death, fear of loss, fear of financial disaster, fear of losing a loved one—terror is subjective and deeply personal.

I love stories about good people solving terrible problems, but I want them to mean something.

While I have experienced violent situations, I’ve also faced many things that shook my world but didn’t threaten my physical safety.

Arguments and confrontations are chaotic, leaving us wondering what just happened. We want to convey that sense of chaos in writing, but we must consider the reader. Readers want to see the scene and understand what they just read. We must design every action scene to ensure they fit naturally into a narrative from the first incident onwards.

The threat and looming disaster must be made clear to the reader at the outset. Nebulous threats mean nothing in real life, although they cause a lot of stress in our daily lives.

Those vague threats might be the harbinger of what is to come in a book, but they only work if the danger materializes quickly and the roadblocks to happiness soon become apparent.

Resolving disaster is the story. Hold the solution just out of reach for the following ¾ of the narrative. Every time we nearly have it fixed, we don’t, and things get worse.

The arc of the story begins with the first event, the inciting incident. The story’s arc occurs because the characters keep reaching for a resolution but can’t quite grasp it. Every attempt is blocked somehow.

959px-One_Ring_Blender_Render

The One Ring, Peter J. Yost, CC BY-SA 4.0

The characters reap the rewards of minor successes but not the golden ring. Those small rewards keep hope alive and keep the reader involved.

If the first problem was taken care of too quickly, why? What sort of trap was laid, and why did the characters take the bait?

If we do this right, we will move our readers emotionally and they will remain invested in our book.

I mentioned that confrontations are chaotic. It’s our job to control that chaos and make a narrative out of it. Nothing upsets a reader more than a book where the author contradicts something that was said or that happened before.

I choreograph action sequences, which can take a little time. Each character’s reactions must be portrayed in such a way the reader doesn’t say, “He wouldn’t do that.”

In real life, people don’t all react the same way. So, our characters can’t all be superheroes in a fight scene. It’s easy to lose the characters’ individuality in the jumble of actions that a confrontation is.

If your violence is war, go to history and see how battles were waged historically. Any war will do, but let’s say you are writing an account of a soldier’s experiences in modern warfare. Go to the Battle of the Bulgealso known as the Ardennes Counteroffensive.

512px-Western_Front_Ardennes_1944

US Army Center for Military History, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve used this battle as an example before because it was a pivotal point in World War II, and the placement of all the forces on both sides is well documented.

Also, one of my uncles fought and was wounded in that battle. Uncle Don came home with a metal plate in his head. American forces endured most of the attack, suffering their highest casualties of any operation during the war.

But you can look at any historical battle. Just remember that even though your book may explore a real soldier’s experiences, you are still writing a fantasy. The past is just hearsay, stories written by the victors. The future is a rumor that may not happen. The only moment that happens for sure is this moment, that moment you experience now.

Our characters exist in their own now, and the inciting incident kicks off their story. Perhaps the soldier’s inciting incident occurs when they join the army. From that point on, the actions and reactions of our soldiers must be logical even amidst the chaos of battle, or the reader will skip over that scene and possibly put the book down.

We make our characters knowable and likable (or not, as the case may be) through physical actions and conversational interactions. In the early part of the story, each scene should illuminate the characters’ motives. The reader must gain information at the same time as the protagonist does.

toolsHowever, the reader has an edge—they will be offered clues from the antagonists’ side, which the characters don’t know. The antagonist’s actions will affect the plot in the future. Even if the antagonist isn’t an overt enemy at the outset, the readers’ knowledge creates a sense of unease, a subliminal worry that things will go wrong.

Through the first half of the book, subtle foreshadowing is essential. This knowledge raises the stakes, increasing the tension.

Next week, we will look at ways to choreograph confrontations and violent encounters.

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#amwriting: revisiting the story arc

howards endE.M. Forster was one of the great English novelists. He was also a short story writer, essayist, and wrote librettos. Forster was considered a master of creating ironic, well-plotted novels that examined class difference and hypocrisy in early 20th-century British society. He really understood how to structure a novel or short story.

He has been quoted as saying that plot is the cause-and-effect relationship between events in a story. His example was, “‘The king died, and then the queen died,’ is a story, while ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief,’ is a plot.”

That is the absolute truth. You can tell that story baldly, but without a plot, the above story is only a casual commentary on the death of two monarchs.

I am not good at winging it when it comes to plotting a novel. I find it helps me to spend a day or two thinking about the story as a whole, how it begins, how it ends, and why it went that way. While I am brainstorming, I write an outline to use as a framework to guide the story. I may not keep to the outline exactly, but the plot points occurring at each of the four quarters will be met, to maintain momentum and not inadvertently introduce inconsistencies.

Inside every good story that seizes the reader’s imagination, there is an arc to the action within the plot, and when it is graphed out, it forms an arc: the story arc. My outline will provide me with the framework for this story arc.

51i0K3WVpML._SX312_BO1,204,203,200_The story begins with the opening act, where the characters are introduced, and the scene is set. It then kicks into gear with the occurrence of the “inciting incident,” which is the first plot point. It occurs around the ¼ mark and triggers the rest of the story. It is “the problem,” the core conflict of the story. This is where the protagonist is thrown into the action and is also where they first find themselves blocked from achieving the desired goal.

Even if you open the story by dropping the character into the middle of an event, you will need to have a pivotal event at the 1/4 mark that completely rocks his/her world. The event that changes everything is what really launches the story.

Following the inciting incident is the second act: more action occurs which leads to more trouble, rising to a severe crisis. At the midpoint, the protagonist and friends are in grave difficulty and are struggling. Within the overall story arc, there are scenes, each of which propels the plot forward, moving the protagonist and antagonist further along the story arc to the final showdown. Each scene is a small arc of action that illuminates the motives of the characters, allows the reader to learn things as the protagonist does, and offers clues regarding things the characters do not know that will affect the plot.

Those clues are foreshadowing. Through the first half of the book, foreshadowing is important, as it piques the reader’s interest, and makes them want to know how the book will end.

At the midpoint, another serious incident occurs, launching the third act and setting them back even further. Now they are aware that they may not achieve their objectives after all. Bad things have happened, and the protagonists have to get creative and work hard to acquire or accomplish their desired goals. They must overcome their own doubts and make themselves stronger.

Someone may die.

Midpoint is also where we get to know the antagonist and learn what the enemy knows that the protagonists do not. We discover his/her motives and what they may be capable of.

By the end of the third act, the protagonists are getting their acts together. They are finding ways to resolve the conflict and are ready to commence the final, fourth act, where they will embark on the final battle. They will face their enemy and either win or lose.

By the end of the book, all the threads have been drawn together and resolved for better or worse. The ending is finite and wraps the conflict up.

No matter how many or how few words you intend to write, your story arc should work the same way. I do this all the time with short stories, because if you know what has to happen at what point in a narrative, you can develop the characters and write each section to that point.

short story arc

In genre fantasy and science fiction, we often have story arcs that evolve and take place across multiple volumes. If you are writing the first novel in what you plan to be a series, it must have a finite ending, regardless of how many books you plan to follow. Even a famous author should obey this rule.

Out of respect for the time the reader has spent reading your work, do not leave them hanging. A second volume can have a less conclusive ending, but the first and the third books must end well or at least finitely. Readers will want to buy that second book simply because of the characters you have created and the great experience they had reading the book they just finished.

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